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Environmentalism's Dark Side

By Imran Mulla.



It was the 20th of September, the day of the General Climate Strike which boasted millions of participants around the world. I had just delivered a speech on decarbonisation at our demonstration in Leicester to a crowd of around 800 people, and was standing to the side listening to a speech by another striker. A woman I had never met before approached me, smiling, and began congratulating me on my speech. I smiled back and thanked her. She then added that I should actually deliver the speech to my own “Asian community”, which was, according to her, the real source of environmental problems.


The smile on my face turned into what I expect looked like a mixture of surprise and amusement. “That’s a bit of a generalisation,” I said hesitantly, but the woman was insistent – Asians in Leicester don’t respect the environment. I awkwardly explained that it was incorrect to say that all Asians damage the environment (which is obviously untrue) and that it was wrong to pin the blame for Britain’s environmental problems on a single, relatively small minority. She doubled down on her position (even mentioning that she had an Asian friend who supported her views). Eventually I realised that I was unlikely to change her mind, and politely extricated myself from the conversation to rejoin the crowd.

It was a long and eventful day and I didn’t think much of the encounter at the time, only remembering it a few weeks later. I was reading an article about the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, who, in response to French voters becoming increasingly concerned with climate change, had begun to style herself as something of an environmentalist. Climate change, she declared, was a significant issue, and environmental protection necessitated reducing immigration. Why? Because immigrants “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland,” she warned.


The current popular discourse, in which those on the Left argue for more aggressive action on climate change and those on the Right accordingly resist, will inevitably change in the years to come as climate denialism ceases to be a viable argument. Instead, we are likely to witness the rise of eco-nationalism, powered by politicians such as Marine Le Pen. There are signs of this already; in January, Austria’s Green party entered into a coalition with the right-wing People’s Party, promising rapid decarbonisation, hijab bans and detention for asylum seekers.


It is becoming increasingly clear that sounding the alarm on climate change, rather than ushering in a new era of progressive politics in the form of a Green New Deal, is just as likely to result in calls for stronger borders. This should not be surprising; after all, environmentalists have often been ethno-nationalist, particularly in America. Consider the environmentalist Sierra Club, which, until the 1990s, campaigned against immigration – or Madison Grant, one of the 20th century’s leading environmentalists, who was also a committed eugenicist (his work was admired by Adolf Hitler).


The German ecologist Garret Hardin can be viewed as a pioneer of anti-immigrant and racist environmentalism. An ardent advocate of “lifeboat ethics”, he argued that rich countries are analogous to lifeboats; since having too many people on a lifeboat would cause it to sink, it is morally acceptable to allow certain people to drown. This became a common argument against accepting immigrants from the Global South – but it was able to gain prominence only because of Malthusian fears about population growth.


The ideas of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a strange and sinister figure, form the basis of much of modern environmentalism. Malthus, an English economist once employed by the British East India Company, warned solemnly that overpopulation among the world’s poor would deplete the earth’s resources, meaning that alleviating poverty is unethical – rather, we must “court the return of the plague”. Malthus’ ideas, later satirised by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol (Scrooge hoped that the poor would die and “decrease the surplus population”) influenced British government policy in the deadliest of ways.


The Irish “potato famine” in the 1840s, caused by British economic policy, was justified by government officials on Malthusian grounds; in fact, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, who had been a former pupil of Malthus in India, said that famine was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”.


Similarly, in 1877 a famine in India – also a result of British economic policy – killed around 10 million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, a firm believer in Malthus’ theory of overpopulation, actively prevented several private attempts to help starving Indians, explaining that the “Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil”.


Malthusianism’s gruesome track record did nothing, however, to dent its popularity among environmentalists in the latter half of the twentieth century. Consider, for example, Paul Ehrlich’s influential 1968 Sierra Club book The Population Bomb, which raised the alarm about overpopulation occurring among “screaming…begging…defecating and urinating” Indians. But Malthusian arguments abound today even among certain sections of the Left; Michael Moore’s recent apocalyptic documentary Planet of the Humans, which argues that “without seeing some sort of major die-off in population, there’s no turning back”, was viewed by millions of people on YouTube. Whenever I deliver a talk on climate change to an adult audience, there’s almost always someone who raises their hand and asks why I haven’t addressed the most important issue of them all, overpopulation.


The enduring popularity of Malthusianism is all the more unfortunate in light of the fact that Malthus (despite his being educated at Jesus College, Cambridge) possessed little analytical skill. He was an incompetent economist and an even worse demographer, and his theories have been proved decisively wrong. In fact, as Michael Shellenberger notes: “Technology has outpaced increases in population and consumption, so that today humankind faces the prospects of reducing the total amount of our usage of natural resources, including land.”

And yet, the overpopulation scare appears to be going nowhere. Most worryingly, it has managed to become fuel for new and deadly forms of eco-fascism. The shooter who gunned down Muslim mosque-goers in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 described himself in his manifesto as an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist” and wrote that “continued immigration into Europe is environmental warfare”. Likewise, the white supremacist behind the August 2019 El Paso shooting wrote in his manifesto that it is necessary to “decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”


Apocalyptic environmentalism, thus, risks fanning the flames both of violent eco-fascism and of eco-nationalist politics across the Global North. National populism has risen steadily across the European continent over the last decade, and it is likely to remain a significant political force in many countries for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether populist parties manage to actually win elections.


In a post-pandemic Europe reeling from economic catastrophe, populists will be aware that their electoral success depends upon their ability to address economic and identity-centred concerns simultaneously – whilst staving off the threat of insurgent Green and social-democratic parties. An increasingly unstable and unsettled world may be the crucible from which emerges a new brand of eco-nationalist politics. These eco-nationalists will stress, deploying “lifeboat ethics”, the need to safeguard rich countries by rejecting refugees and immigrants. They will use environmental alarmism to call for tighter borders, and will oppose development in the Global South on Malthusian grounds. Many voters will be hoodwinked into scapegoating migrants and ethnic minorities – such as the woman who spoke to me at the General Strike, who was likely completely well-intentioned and sincere. Mainstream right-wing governments, anxious not to lose their electorates, could rush to adopt many eco-nationalist policies. As the global climate destabilises, so too may our political systems.


None of this, of course, is guaranteed – and there is no benefit to feeling anxiety over a possible eco-nationalist future. I would argue, however, that eco-nationalism is likely to become a serious political force, and we must accordingly prepare for its arrival. Climate activists must make a conscious effort to avoid apocalyptic rhetoric of the sort that has often been deployed by Extinction Rebellion; alarmism is just as likely to trigger virulently eco-nationalist reactions as it is to lead to a positive response.


Our message must be level-headed and hopeful: climate change is a significant issue, but not one that heralds human extinction. We have to decisively reject the menace of Malthusianism and make it a priority to debunk such narratives wherever we find them. Climate denialism may be on its way out, but what will replace it is likely to be far worse. We have to be ready.


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